Carrying children on bikes
Child seats. Trailers. Tagalongs. Cargo bikes. With the right kit you can carry children from birth right through until they can ride on their own.
Bike-mad parents often worry that having kids will prevent them from cycling as much as they did before microscopic cell-division transformed their lives. If the bike-mad parent in question rides hundreds of miles per week for fitness, as part of a racing regime, then, yes, the stresses and strains of modern parenting will mean the mileage will have to be reduced. Kids eat your time. But what you lose in quantity you more than make up for in quality. It’s wonderful to strap a kid into a child-seat and hear their purrs of contentment, their whoops of joy, as you whizz along. The noise doesn’t last, young children very quickly nod off on the back of bikes, ditto for those schlepped in trailers.
Your way of cycling changes. Eight-hour century rides are out, unless you can earn enough brownie points for some ground leave. In their place you have short, sharp bouts of cycling. Actually, this can still be an excellent workout, as any parent who has pulled a trailer, a tot and paraphernalia will tell you.
With the right kit, you can get places on your bike – with kid in tow – you might not have thought possible. In fact, cycling with portable kids can be a positive joy. Hauling groceries by bike is practical but rarely joyful. Add kids to the mix and it becomes fun. Kids love being outdoors in the fresh air, up close to nature. Of course, on child-seats kids are closer to your posterior than nature but so long as you’re not a particularly windy parent, kids don’t mind the restricted view.
You can cart your kids to nursery on the bike or you can pack a picnic and head to a countryside bike path, a beach, anywhere scenic. Flora and fauna is a bonus, especially the fauna, especially if big and horse-shaped.
One of the chief advantages of pulling/pushing children from your bike is the coaching: when you’re going too slow for your little passengers, say up a steep hill, you can be sure you’ll be told about it.
Kids who are carted by bike from an early age pick up the message that cycling is normal, a standard way of getting around. It also gets kids used to the idea of cycling on the road. Kids who are carted often transition easily to their own bikes, under their own steam. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pulling/pushing your kids so your range and speed isn’t limited but it’s in everybody’s interests to get your kids pedalling solo as soon as possible. By the age of six they should no longer need one of the products below, except for acting as stoker on a tandem, which can be for life. If your child is a lot slower than you’d prefer, handicap yourself. For instance, you could be the family packhorse by loading yourself down with luggage.
When you cycle you get warm rapidly. However, children in childseats, and to a lesser extent, children on tagalongs won’t be as warm. Wrap them up in extra layers to prevent wind chill.
If your bike is fitted with a kickstand, bear in mind this won’t be enough to balance a bike and a squirming child in a child seat, front or rear. Getting on and off a bike fitted with a rear child seat takes some getting used to. Swing your leg backwards and you risk whacking your child in the face, although it’s more likely you’ll hit your leg on the footwell of the robust plastic childseat.
The adult bike that’s used for pulling a trailer or carrying a child seat needs to be robust, in good working order and with especially good brakes. For the legality of carrying kids on bikes, see the ‘Cycling and the law’ article.
There are many and varied ways for carrying children on bikes, starting with child trailers for babies, progressing through to bike seats, and tagalongs, with a diversion into ‘box-bikes’, should you want to carry not just siblings but their friends, too.
Each method has its pros and cons, its champions and its detractors. Which you choose will be up to the age of the child, your budget, your likes and dislikes, and ready access to what can be specialist equipment. Independent bike shops will be able to advise on the best kit for your requirements.
Child trailers AGE: Birth-6
These are lightweight buggies made with a framework of hollow aluminium tubes. The body of the trailer is made from nylon fabric, pulled taut. They have two wheels, and a nylon rain/wind cover with see through side windows. Some have mosquito style netting covers for warmer days. Towing the trailer is via an aluminium towbar attached with a large hitch that fits between the rear stays of the bike, or by a quick release skewer hitch for bikes without standard rear stays.
For health and safety reasons, most hospitals now insist parents must take their newborns home in a proper car child-seat, and hospital staff usually accompany the parents to their car to make sure the child-seat is properly strapped in. In theory, you could start your child’s cycling life from the very earliest age but quite what a hospital would say if you trucked up on a bike with a child trailer attached is anybody’s guess. However, if you use a quality car child-seat and strap it securely into the trailer, there should be zero issues with safety. Some trailer brands also produce baby supporter add-ons for their trailers.
Most trailer brands advise against fitting child car seats into trailers, although this a disclaimer to protect against potential litigation and many parents have no qualms about carrying their offspring in this way.
The standard advice is that babies can only go in trailers – without car seats or baby support add-ons – when they can hold up the weight of their heads. Most babies develop neck muscles strong enough to hold their head up by the age of six months.
The child sits in a hammock seat made from nylon and is held in with a harness fastened with buckles. Most have room for two children, some slimmer models are suitable for one child and a couple of soft toys only.
The two-child models have enough room for lots of toys and there’s usually a rear compartment for storing larger items, such as changing mats, nappies, potties and so on. Some trailers can be converted to use as strollers when unattached from the bike.
Keep a pillow and a blanket in the trailer for the inevitable snooze. Keep drink and a snack in the side pockets for your child to access.
When not in use carrying children, a child trailer doubles up as a luggage trailer. In some, the child seats fold flat leaving lofts of luggage space.
Children as old as six can just about fit in a trailer but they’ll be itching to get out on a tagalong or their own bike. Bike trailers are rigid enough to take a hit or survive a roll-over but dismantle quickly for fitting into cars or taking on public transport.
PROS: Lightweight. Room for two children, who can chat and play, and sleep easily, with necks supported with cushions. Warm and dry. Surprisingly safe in a roll-over. Lots of space and pockets for extra toys, distractions, food and drink. If the adult bike takes a spill, the swivelling hitch means the trailer stays upright. Trailers tend to be more comfortable for the occupant than child seats.
CONS: Difficult to talk to child. Slight risk of roll-overs should you hit a curb or similar. Can be bumpy for child, although not as bumpy as a childseat (expensive models feature suspension). Wide, so won’t fit through barriers on Sustrans-style cycle trails.
Rear child-seats AGE: six months-5
Traditional Dutch child seats – front and rear – are made from steel or aluminium ribs and offer little roll-over protection for a child. Modern rear child-seats are made from tough plastic in a wraparound shape with all manner of additional safety features. A high back will protect when the child snaps his or her head back when riding along, especially when asleep. Deep footrests and retention straps are so kiddy feet don’t get snagged in the rear wheel. There’s generally a secure, three-point harness.
Rear child-seats are fitted behind the adult’s saddle, mounted to a rear rack or cantilevered off struts.
Some of the more luxurious child seats have recline features to use once the child has fallen asleep. Wraparound side panels are like little roll cages, very protective in a crash. There might also be a bar for the hands to rest on and to attach kiddy accessories.
If you’ve got a sprung saddle, fit a spring guard (or use a different saddle) so kids can’t get their fingers trapped.
Different child seats have different recommended weight limits, ranging from 40-70 pounds. For the inevitable sleepytime, have a horseshoe-shaped pillow handy. These are similar to flight pillows for adults and can be found in baby shops. They’re meant for use in child car seats and do the same job.
PROS: Talking to child is easy. Lighter and less expensive than a trailer.
CONS: As the child is carried high on the bike there’s a risk of topple over if you leave the bike unattended. Child’s view is mostly of your bum. Child raises bike’s centre of gravity, altering ride. Room for one child only (although you could fit a front rack too, or attach a tagalong).
Front child-seats AGE: 1-5
Common on the Continent, rare in the UK and USA, front mounting child seats are deemed to more dangerous than rear child seats – because they’re front-facing – but there’s little evidence to back up such fears. Even the best of them can interfere with pedalling, making for a knees-out motion. Small adults may not be able to get their child in a front child seat because there’s not enough room on the toptube of the bike.
The child perches on a mini-saddle on the top-tube of the parent’s bike, with feet strapped into small footrests. However, it’s easy for little feet to wriggle out of these insubstantial footrests, and into the front wheel.
There are also more robust models, with wraparound arm- and foot-wells.
PROS: Talking to child is even easier than with rear facing child-seat. Child has unrestricted view. Lighter and less expensive than a trailer. Slightly easier to get a child into a front child seat than a rear one.
CONS: High risk of topple over if you leave the bike unattended. Room for one child only (although you could fit a rear rack too, or attach a tagalong).
Cargo bikes AGE: Birth-adult
When not carting cargo, you can cart your kid. With the Xtracycle you can do both. An Xtracycle is an aftermarket accessory that extends the wheelbase of a bike, adding an extra bit of frame from which is attached an elongated back rack. Extra long cables and extra chain come in the build-up kit but you keep your existing rear wheel. To carry kids and cargo you might want to fit a stronger rear wheel. The donor bike needs to be tough and other component may need to be upgraded as well as the rear wheel.
An Xtracyle allows you to carry one or two children (ages 5 and up) on the extended rear rack, called the ‘snap deck’. This can be fitted with a padded top. There’s enough room to install a child seat, called the PeaPod, and still have room for another child. One child on an Xtracycle can use optional, removable foot paddles. Xtracycle’s promotional materials show adults being carried so even large children can be given lifts. If there’s likely to be a regular passenger on the back consider fitting a ‘stokers bar’, a little handlebar attached to your seatpost and which the child can hold on to for extra purchase.
With bags attached it’s possible to carry a child and the weekly shopping. The Xtracycle is rated to carry up to 200lbs, meaning it can carry an adult with ease.
PROS: Talking to child is easy. Very flexible cargo/child combinations
CONS: Restricted view. Child is not restrained so could fall, especially if no stoker bar is fitted.
Box bikes AGE: Birth-adult
Carrying two children by bike is relatively easy, more than this requires specialised cargo bikes. Confusingly, this category is often now called ‘Bakfiets’, from the Dutch for ‘box bike’. But Bakfiets is the brand-name of a Netherlands-based bike business.
Some cargo bikes, with child-carrying capabilities, are four wheelers, most have three wheels but there’s also a couple of two wheelers with the box slung in the middle of a long frame.
The most famous ‘box bike’ is the Christiana of Denmark. This is technically a tadpole trike, with a large box between the two front wheels. There have been similar bikes since the golden age of bicycle design in the 1880s but the modern Christiana was developed in 1994 by a husband and wife team living in the Christiana hippie enclave of Copenhagen. There are now an estimated 20,000 of these bikes in Copenhagen, and use is spreading to the UK and the US.
The original model – and still the most popular in Denmark – has a single gear, fine for the flat. Export versions now have 8-speed internal Shimano hubs or equivalent.
Bakfiets, despite being a brandname, is now becoming generic and there are a number of different ‘Bakfietsen’ on the market. Most will carry up to four children.
A standard Bakfiets has a long wheelbase, relaxed head-tube angle and low-slung frame: uphill may be a struggle but downhill these things can sure move, and are surprisingly stable, depending on the load, of course. The roller brakes, when properly maintained, and packed with grease, are good in all weathers. Newbies often find Bakfiets to be twitchy to ride but, relax, don’t steer it with your body like a bike, it’s all in the hands and arms. They need just the lightest touch to keep under tight control. Being 8ft long and with a 25 inch wide box, a Bakfiets isn’t easy to store. However, they were built tough to be stored outside. They’re heavy but will last a lifetime, and with very little maintenance.
PROS: Surprisingly agile. Easy to hold conversations with children being carried. With cover, provides protection from the elements. Excellent view for adult and children.
CONS: Without cargo, heavy. With cargo, heavier. Wide. Severely non-aerodynamic into a gale (but like a land-yacht when there’s a tailwind).
Tagalongs AGE 4-9
This is a third wheel attached to a frame extension fitted with handlebars and enables a child to pedal (or not pedal) but not steer. In effect, add a tagalong to an adult bike and you have an articulated tandem. Originally known as a Rann trailer (so named because of Bill Rann of England, who came up with the idea in the 1930s), the concept was popularised in Britain in the 1980s by Isla Rowntree of Rowntree Bikes. She now markets Islabike children’s bikes. Her name for the product was Trailerbike and this name has become generic, although the style is also known as trail-a-bike, trailer cycle or tagalong.
Suitable for children aged four and up, a tagalong often attaches to the adult bike via a seatpost clamp. The best, and most expensive, tagalong on the market uses a stronger and superior attachment system, a ball-bearing guided hitch with a double locking mechanism that clamps into a special rear rack.
Tagalongs are solo machines but there’s a tandem version available, too. This also attaches via a seat post clamp but two heavy children can make for a seriously unstable ride: it’s flip-floppy and not to be recommended for anything other than very short journeys with children who will not rock from side to side.
Tagalongs can be installed and removed easily, making them good for storing and transport. Tagalongs can also be added to tandems, making for very long ‘bicycles’ indeed. Make sure the towing bike is fitted with mudguards and mudflaps otherwise the towed child risks being covered in rain and mud.
There are also a number of tagalong-style devices that hook up a child’s existing bike to the adult’s bike. Make sure the affixing hitch is super-strong. Early versions of this style of tagalong – which sometimes come on to the secondhand market – are unsafe. Look for a super-strong hitch.
The very best tagalongs can travel at speed, with only slight detrimental handling on the adult bike. Most of the other tagalongs are for low speed only, although they get unstable at very slow speeds. Because the most expensive tagalongs mount via racks, it’s a good idea to buy extra racks for these models, to fit on to other bikes in your fleet. This enables one parent to drop off a child at school and for another to do the picking up (locking the tagalong at school).
By age seven, the child should be weaned on to their own bike but smaller children could comfortably pedal a quality tagalong until nine or even ten. It’s important for the towed child to stay seated rather than get out of the saddle and honk from side to side. Such a manoeuvre can be very unstable for the adult cyclist. Kids like adding power to the effort of moving forward, although their efforts can noticeable tail off on hills. Encourage the child to pedal, it makes quite a difference.
PROS: Child feels as though he or she is contributing to forward motion.
CONS: Seat post hitches can be weak making the child’s ride floppy and unstable. If a child stops pedalling they can get cold very quickly. Restricted view.
Tandems AGE 6-adult
There are tandems built to fit a child on the back. They are called, wait for it, child back tandems. Bikes with two stokers are called triplets. Or you could take an existing tandem and add a ‘child stoker’ kit, which adds a higher set of ‘kiddy cranks’, chainwheel and chain to the seat-tube in the stoker position at the back of the bike.
It’s also possible to affix a trailer or tagalong to a tandem – or even a triplet – to make a very long vehicle indeed. Despite appearances to the contrary this can be a very stable set-up.
A tagalong bike has pedalling that’s independent of the towing bike. Not so on a tandem. The stoker’s pedals are connected to the captain’s pedals, meaning the child will have to pedal at the same time and at the same speed as the adult on the front. Of course, the child doesn’t have to put in any effort, should they so choose, although the captain will know when the power slackens off. Little feet are prone to slip off the rear pedals but the captain will still be pedalling, risking a nasty injury for the stoker. For this reason most child stokers have their feet strapped in with toe-straps or use clip-in pedals and shoes.
CONS: A tandem with a child back will only last a limited number of years (unless there are multiple children of cascading ages)